Lowest-priced, largest-volume Tesla yet has wooed and wowed the buying public in the US. Should UK buyers join the queue for a Model 3?
  • First Drive

    Tesla Model 3 2018 review

    Lowest-priced, largest-volume Tesla yet has wooed and wowed the buying public in the US. Should UK buyers join the queue for a Model 3?

What is it?

Elon Musk wants to start a candy company. Yes, the CEO of Tesla (and SpaceX, once of PayPal) is, apparently, deadly serious about this, he tweeted the other day. Thus it means it has “never been harder to be a parody account”, according to a perpetually amusing Musk parody account that presents ideas as if they were from a bored Elon.

This stuff makes it hard, sometimes, to separate the noise around Tesla from the substance of Tesla. There’s more hubbub, more hype, more anti-hype, more short-selling of stocks, both more hoo-ha and doubt, more nonsense surrounding the company than there is any other vehicle maker. More scrutiny than there is around even Volkswagen. Despite, y’know, the obvious.

To the chase, then: this is the Tesla Model 3, the third current and fourth ever Tesla production car. Originally, there was the Roadster, developed with help from Lotus, and currently, there is the Model S luxury hatch and Model X SUV, both seven-seaters.

This Model 3 (Tesla would have liked it to have been called the Model E, but Ford nabbed the trademark) will be supplemented by a Model Y crossover later still – Tesla says two years, I suspect more – so the range will include ‘S3XY’ models. You can see what they did there. The automotive industry doesn’t do enough humour, to be fair.

Oh, and Tesla plans to add another Roadster later, and an articulated truck. Plus, Musk-wise, there are the sweets, those SpaceX reusable space rockets that land on barges, solar roof panels, tunnels, hyperloops and flamethrowers, among myriad ventures.

How would you feel about all of that if you’d ordered a Model 3, production volumes of which are still somewhat mired in the “production hell” Tesla talked about last year? Frustrated? Maybe. Well, they know it.

So, here it is, anyway. The Model 3 is, as every Tesla is, a fast electric car with a convincing range. It’s Tesla’s first affordable, high-volume car, although both ‘affordable’ and ‘volume’ still need work: it costs $35,000 in the US, with a UK price still to be confirmed. And although Tesla’s already building more of these than anything else, it’s still not enough.

At the moment, the factory in Fremont, California, US, is turning out around 2200 cars a week, which sounds like a lot but falls short of the 5000 cars a week Tesla wanted to be making by now; and the 10,000 a week it would like to build eventually. Right-hand-drive UK variants won’t arrive until next year, at the earliest, after left-hand-drive exports start, so we took it upon ourselves to fly and taxi to Fremont to try one.

At the moment, not only are all Model 3s left-hand-drive, but they’re also of the highest mechanical and trim specification – although neither of these is unusual when you want to capitalise on early orders, of which there are around half a million.

If you’re looking for a rival, consider the BMW 3 Series or 5 Series, depending on your outlook. The Model 3 is a five-seat saloon and 4.7m long, which puts it a toe width longer than a 3 Series, although it’s more spacious inside, hence the 5 Series comparison. There are fewer mechanical shenanigans to package, which is why there’s good interior space and a boot at both the back and the front.

What's it like?

The Model 3's platform is different from the Model S’s and Model X’s, although it’s of a similar ‘skateboard’ layout. At the front are double wishbones, and there’s a multi-link set-up at the rear, with coil springs all round. The batteries run along the floor, pretty much axle to axle, and there’s a steel-and-aluminium body atop.

In its base form, the car gets a 220-mile range on the US combined drive cycle (European range to be confirmed), which Tesla is now just calling a Standard Battery, on account of the kWh rating apparently being too baffling for most consumers.

It’s about 60kWh, anyway, although there’s a Long Range Battery option of around 75kWh (actually, it’s bigger than that, but 75kWh will be the usable portion), which will have a 310-mile range. Less when it’s cold and less when it’s old, obviously.

You can charge a Tesla at any electrical socket, but the company's network of Superchargers – now up to 9500 – are the quickest.

We saw a charging rate of 360 miles per hour in California but, unlike with the Model S and Model X, charging at them won’t be free for Model 3s. It’ll likely cost a tenner for a full fill in the UK.

The Model 3 has a single electric motor at the rear – making around (Tesla doesn’t quote a figure) 271bhp and 307lb ft (from rest) – driving the rear wheels, allowing the big-battery version to do 0-60mph in 5.1sec and reach 140mph, it’s claimed.

The basic US price equates to £25,000 at today’s money, but it won’t be by the time the Model 3 arrives, partly because cars are cheaper in the US and partly because all cars at the start, and most of them, presumably, thereafter, will have the big battery ($9000) and a Premium Upgrade package (including uprated trim, better audio, more storage, a tinted glass roof, heated, powered seats and so on, at $5000).

Our test car, also given metallic paint, 19in wheels and ‘advanced Autopilot’, rolled up at $57,000 (£42,000). Autopilot currently does what software and legislation allow it to: act as an adaptive cruise control system with lane-keeping assist.

It’s pretty simple to operate. Once on the open road, you tap the gearlever, which will already be in ‘D’, to ‘D’ again to activate the radar-controlled cruise. Via the right nipple on the wheel, you can adjust the distance it’ll leave to the car in front. A double pull to ‘D’ also activates the steering assist.

There’s a graphical display on the monitor of where other traffic is, and it’s one of the most aware systems I’ve tried. Tesla says the hardware is already installed for when full autonomy is permitted.

The car has eight cameras, 12 ultrasonic monitors and the forward-facing radar, and a new software programme could enable it to operate autonomously. Tesla thinks this is all a car will need for Enhanced Autopilot, for use on a freeway and when parking, and indeed even for full self-driving (another $3000).

Meantime, though, download an app onto your smartphone and slip a card into your wallet and that’s all the key the Model 3 requires.

The door handles are conventional, rather than the automatic pop-out versions on the larger Teslas, and they open conventional doors onto one of the airiest interiors this side of a car with no roof.

An uncovered sunroof at the front and a rear window that stretches up into the roof give good head room, while across the dashboard sweeps a big wooden panel, above which is one big, heavily diffused air vent. Fit and finish are fine.

Centre stage is a 15.0in monitor that could have been swiped off your work desk. There are column stalks, two multifunction buttons on the steering wheel and a hazard-warning switch on the roof, required by law. And no other buttons. Everything is controlled via the touchscreen.

Genius or infuriating? Honestly, a mix of both, but mostly genius.

The touchscreen is quick to respond, software downloads occur every few weeks once you’ve approved it via the app, sat-nav mapping is by Google Maps so traffic monitoring is brilliant and the whole menu system is intuitive.

The downsides are that if you don’t want things to happen automatically or you want to change something – headlights, air conditioning, door mirrors – it’s rarely the work of a moment. And given that there’s inevitably some body movement, you have to brace your hand against the screen's edge. But if you’re a touchscreen convert, it’s as good as it can be.

I’m not sure the seats are. They’re flat and a touch unsupportive, although the driving position’s generally sound. The wheel stretches out electrically – go to a sub-menu, use one of the steering wheel nipples to adjust it – and is, at two turns between locks (although slower around straight-ahead than when lock’s applied) easily responsive. You can change the weight if you want – light, medium or heavy – but medium is best.

I’ll tell you something, too: I really like electric powertrains. I know, I know. Like you, I also rather like flat-plane-crank V8s with tiny flywheels. But if you want the ultimate in powertrain refinement, electric take-up is the way.

The Rolls-Royce Phantom is arguably smoother, on account of superior and relentless tuning in that department, but I think this is the next best. Which is not a bad comparator.

You can turn creep on or off, have a long throttle pedal or a normally responsive one and choose between light or normal levels of regenerative braking when you lift off. And once you get attuned to the level of acceleration (brisk) and deceleration (also brisk) the Model 3 delivers as you flex your ankle, it’s really rather compelling.

Less clever is the ride, despite some relatively unremarkable chassis characteristics. The Model 3 can’t fit the really high-range batteries of the Model S and Model X owing to its smaller size, but it still maintains a lengthy 2875mm wheelbase, and the weight is a not unreasonable 1730kg (1610kg with the smaller battery).

And even though most of its heft is situated low in the chassis, the Model 3 on 19in wheels manages to both ride with the jitters and yet take a moment to settle over bigger crests. Odd. Maybe it’s heavier, after equipment, than Tesla claims. Or perhaps it’s another electric car that doesn’t get ride quality right.

Yes, I know 1730kg is a fair whack, but with a low centre of gravity and a pretty even 48/52 front-to-rear weight distribution (1% more to the rear on the Standard Battery), I’m not sure why it shouldn’t be better. Still, it’s far from bad: just don’t expect 3 Series levels of control.

On a twisting road, you’ll find that the Model 3 steers convincingly and grips pretty well. It’s not a sports saloon, not in handling terms, anyway, but it is a capable one. Because of the instant torque and seamless delivery, it’s quick, too.

Should I buy one?

The Model 3 is not the perfect car, but what is? After two days in it, I rather liked it. And that’s my gig: to separate the metal from the noise.

Some people have shorted Tesla stocks and have an interest in it failing, some people say it’s grim to work there and some people evidently have an interest in it succeeding – not least the 40,000 people who work there. I don’t know.

If you create a company and take on 40,000 people, set about a new dealer network, install more than 6000 very fast chargers and embark on creating the world’s largest battery factory, you earn yourself a certain amount of credit. But you’ve got to build cars properly one day.

Anyway, this kind of talk is for people who care more about arguments and less about metal than I do, so I can’t help with that.

Ultimately, a manufacturer lives and dies by the quality and desirability of the cars it turns out, and that bit I can advise you on: the Model 3 is both credible and desirable.

Tesla Model 3 specification

Where San Francisco, USA Price £40,000 (est); On sale early 2019; Motor permanent magnet; Battery 75kWh; Power 271bhp; Torque 307lb ft; Gearbox single speed; Kerb weight 1730kg; Top speed 140mph; 0-62mph 5.1sec; Range 310 miles; CO2 0g/km; Rivals BMW 3 Series, Jaguar I-Pace

Join the debate


16 May 2018

Much of " the noise " around of the Model 3 ( factory hell aside ) has focused on build and material quality, something you have failed to adress, in a very lengthy review of a £40k+ car that people in the UK are supposed to wait over a year for.

I am very interested in reading/hearing peoples opinion on " that " noise. I guess i'll have to look somewhere else.



16 May 2018

Tesla have proved two things: the car industry was ripe for disruption, and volume production is really hard.

The 3 is another brilliant car but can it sustain the company? As it is, it once again is a Tesla with no direct competitors (perhaps only the BMW i3).

19 May 2018
scrap wrote:

Tesla have proved two things: the car industry was ripe for disruption, and volume production is really hard.

The 3 is another brilliant car but can it sustain the company? As it is, it once again is a Tesla with no direct competitors (perhaps only the BMW i3).

 the closest is now the I-pace which is the closes you will get till the E-tron.

16 May 2018

The build quality issues are now sorted and the suspension has been much improved since the first units. Early units always have the issues it takes time but they now have got there.

16 May 2018

Agreed. Build & material quality need to be addressed given Tesla's patchy record (the nunber of misaligned doors on the Model S I've seen) and the fact that US car manufacturers in general don't pay much attention in these areas.

Love the minimalist interior but more physical dials and controls that depend on feel & touch rather than assess via touchscreen would have been better. The exterior looks anonymous. The front grille looks like a blanked-out afterthought. The exterior does not communicate this as a revolutionary EV. It should have looked something like the Audi A2 or the first generation Mercedes A class - a design which is completely rethought.

16 May 2018

Yeah it looks cool. But appears asinine to need to adjust your mirrors by finding the function on the screen, when clearly quicker is to have a button on the conventional spot. Same applies to functions like - heating, fan, lights. I reckon manufacturers that keep the functions drivers need to quickly adjust and can't predict exactly when - conventional. But, everything else which is less likely to be needed to be adjusted when moving, can very much be hosted on a touch screen. So I'd say - all for simplified dashbord but not too simplified. There are few things that can't be - overdone. About the car itself, it's clearly as pretty as looked on pre production models. However clearly prices appear likley to actually range from around 40K to 50K. Thus clearly executive car - not quite affordable enough for general masses. Still, if it succeeds, it may be enough to stabilize Tezla as manufacurers of executive and luxury cars. A competitor to established makes in those sectors. 

16 May 2018

Cannot safely be operated on RHD cars by right handed drivers. Unless you’re ambidextrous or left handed this is a very real hazard.

Not quite enough to make me cancel my order, placed in March 2016 though, because I believe that in the (probably) 2 years before RHD cars are delivered, most of those functions currently performed on the screen will be available via voice control.

Yes, its styling is challenging (only the IPace among electric cars looks good to me) and yes, it’s defini overweight and under engineered.

But early adopters of what is almost certain to be the future of individual transport have to pay up and accept this. Or stick with their combustion cars until the keys are dragged from their hands...





Aussie Rob - a view from down under


16 May 2018

I think the car looks totally underwhelming, and the interior totally 'low-rent' with a ridiculous'whiteboard' nailed to the middle of the dash.

You are right Rob that in a RHD car (unless you are left handed), the touch screen doesnt work.....its tech for the sake of tech and pretty much sums up Tesla.

They have proved incapable of building cars in anything like the necessary numbers...they continue to lose billions, and I am very surprised that supposed business investors have been so patient over seeing a return. I predict their patience will end as suddenly as it started

Musk has underestimated the effort behind producing cars in large numbers as many have before. It is my opinion that as suddenly as Tesla became the 'darling' of speculators, it will suddenly become 'toxic' and Tesla will fail....at least as a car manufacturer. The money they have 'in the bank' is mostly made up of deposits, which may be reclaimed as buyers a) get fed up with hollow promises of delivery dates or b) get the wobbles over the security of those deposits if the company folds.

I personally wont miss them as I dont like the look of the product - but nor do I like EV's, although in my heart I know we are eventually going to be inundated by the anodine 'milkcarts', which will (just) still be beter than public transport.

There has been so much talk of Tesla being a 'disruptor' to the industry....I think it is more of a distractor.....there has been continuous 'noise from Musk with massive claims of running everyone else out of town. The model 3 will be £50k in the UK, and with the big 3 German premiums plus Jaguar getting their act to gether  (with properly built cars to a realistic schedule), the writing is on the wall for Tesla....IMO

16 May 2018

It was only yesterday I moaned as to why Autocar have never tested a car that outsells the 3 series BMW in America.

Anyhow stunning car for so many reasons, fast, quiet, cheap on fuel, controlled emissions.

By the time it gets to the UK I just hope there's more knobs and dials, less of the touch screen interface and minor changes to the looks. Looking forward to the MK2 and Model Y for those reasons.

typos1 - Just can’t respect opinion

16 May 2018
xxxx wrote:

It was only yesterday I moaned as to why Autocar have never tested a car that outsells the 3 series BMW in America.

Except it doesn't. 3 series alone is 30% ahead ytd, then add in the 4-series Gran Coupe sales! And the Model 3 is new, and the 3-series is old and not even the class leader.

The C-class blows Model 3 away - its worst month (Feb) was above Model 3's best month (April) and in April C-class outsold Model 3 by 33%. 


Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week